Researchers at Washington University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are developing pliable LED implants to study and treat pain. A study of the devices was published in Nature Biotechnology this month.
The micro-LED devices operate on optogenetics, a neuroscientific technique in which neurons are genetically modified to be light-sensitive. This allows for the controlled firing or blocking of neural signals through exposing the modified neurons to a light source.
Generally, optogenetics techniques rely on external light sources that limit targetable circuits of neurons to those near the skeleton or skull, where rigid fiber optics cables can be anchored to prevent damaging neural tissue due to movement.
The new implantable system, based on thin, soft materials similar to biological tissue, allows researchers to overcome those hurdles and place the light source anywhere in the body.
The newly-developed micro-LEDs were designed to be able to study circuits in the peripheral nervous system and spinal cord. The micro-sized devices are powered by radio frequency signals transmitted to a tiny, stretchable antenna.
Researchers tested the device in proof-of-concept experiments by implanting it in mice over the sciatic nerve and epidural space above the spinal cord, according to the study. The group showed that shining light on groups of neurons through to be involved in pain and modified to be light sensitive could induce behaviors associated with pain.
While still early, investigator Robert Gereau of the University of Washington told MIT’s Technology Review the technology allowed insight into “some very long-standing questions” about how spinal cord sensory data is transmitted and processed and helped identify which neurons are thought to be involved in pain.
Future developments could use the same technology to apply targeted therapies using optogenetics to manipulate and reduce the burden of chronic pain, Gereau said.